“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” That goes for ghostwriters too.
RIP Theodore C. Sorensen, ghostwriter for President John F. Kennedy,whose poetic turns of phrase helped immortalize a tragically brief administration. He died on October 31 at the age of 82.
According to the Associated Press, some of Kennedy’s most memorable speeches, from his inaugural address to his vow to place a man on the moon, resulted from such close collaborations with Sorensen that scholars debated who wrote what. He had long been suspected as the real writer of the future president’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Profiles in Courage,” an allegation Sorensen and the Kennedys emphatically — and litigiously — denied.
But why, I ask, are people bothered by the idea of a ghostwriter?
Kennedy called him “my intellectual blood bank.” But the press frequently referred to Sorensen as Kennedy’s “ghostwriter,” especially after the release of “Profiles in Courage.” Presidential secretary Evelyn Lincoln saw it another way: “Ted was really more shadow than ghost, in the sense that he was never really very far from Kennedy.”
Over the weekend I watched the Kevin Costner movie “Thirteen Days,” which chronicled how close this planet came to World War III. Sorensen had a big hand in preventing that horrific tragedy.
Sorensen’s brain was never needed more than in October 1962, says AP, with the U.S. and the Soviet Union on the brink of nuclear annihilation over the placement of Soviet missiles in Cuba. Kennedy directed Sorensen and his brother Bobby Kennedy, the administration’s attorney general, to draft a letter to Nikita Khrushchev, who had sent conflicting messages, first conciliatory, then confrontational.
“The carefully worded response — which ignored the Soviet leader’s harsher statements and included a U.S. concession involving U.S. weaponry in Turkey — was credited with persuading the Soviets to withdraw their missiles from Cuba and with averting war between the superpowers,” said the AP obituary.
Sorensen considered this role as his greatest achievement.
“That’s what I’m proudest of,” he once told the Omaha (Neb.) World-Herald. “Never had this country, this world, faced such great danger. You and I wouldn’t be sitting here today if that had gone badly.”
“He was one of the principal architects of the Kennedy presidency — in fact, the entire Kennedy career,” said Robert Dallek, a historian and the author of “An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963,” He agreed that Sorensen played a central role in that crisis and throughout the administration.
The AP goes on to say that of the many speeches Sorensen helped compose, Kennedy’s inaugural address shone brightest. Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations includes four citations from the speech — one-seventh of the entire address, which built to an unforgettable exhortation: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
As with “Profiles in Courage, Sorensen never claimed primary authorship of the address. Rather, he described speechwriting within Kennedy’s White House as highly collaborative — with JFK a constant kibitzer.